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Opinion Where Wheat Decays And People Starve

Jan 6, 2005
Metro-Vancouver, B.C., Canada
May 15, 2011

Where wheat decays and people starve
Gobind Thukral - South Asia Post - May 15, 2011

ANYONE traveling through Punjab and Haryana is greeted by mountains of wheat. Large markets of Moga, Khanna, Jaraon and Malout in Punjab besides Kaithal Karnal, Hisar and Sirsa in Haryana along with numerous 250 mandis and 2,500 odd purchase centers are overflowing with the fresh golden grain. Western Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh are other wheat surplus states.

This is a massive operation by a host of government procurement agencies that have collected millions of jute bags, several lakh labourers and a cash chest of over Rs 40,000 crore. It requires huge storage space and gigantic movement of wheat by trucks and trains. Except storage and slack movement by goods trains, the rest of the massive operation is well managed. Rotting food grains, a common sight in Punjab and Haryana, is a sad if not a tragic phenomenon and a shame for a country where millions can afford only one meal a day. Rodents etc eat away a good million tonnes every year. What is lost otherwise including courtesy of those ‘smart’ officials is anyone’s guess. Corruption is the bane of the whole food business.

“We work on war footing as we understand the significance of the procurement for our public distribution system and for our farmers who must sell, take home their money and get busy with the next crop”, says Mr. D.S.Guru , Principal Secretary to the Punjab chief minister and man in charge of the procurement business for the last four years. Preparations begin in right earnest when farmers begin sowing. And, since it has an enormous political import, the chief ministers in both Punjab and Haryana monitor these operations every morning and evening.

India is targeting procurement of 26.2 million tonnes[ MT] during 2011-12 marketing season on the back of projected record wheat production of 84.27 MT during 2011 crop year. Punjab government has raised its wheat output estimates for the current season to 160 lakh tonnes, the highest ever production figure in last one decade. This year Haryana expects a production of about 115 lakh tonnes of wheat. Last year the state had produced about 105 lakh tonnes of wheat. When wheat arrivals end in another fortnight, Punjab would have procured 110 lakh tonnes.

Punjab’s procurement procedure, which witnesses around 100 lakh tonnes of wheat and 135 lakh tonnes of paddy being procured every year in a time span of one month each, is considered a marvel.

Yet Punjab is currently facing shortage of almost 71 lakh tonnes of storage. The state is still burdened with 42 lakh tonnes of wheat stock and 62 lakh tonnes of rice, occupying bulk of covered godowns space. Field reports suggest the worsening condition of the grains of earlier years. Rotten paddy and wheat in Fatehgarh Sahib district is a threat to the health of the people. Moisture worsens the quality of paddy. Malathion sprays and fumigation with Aluminium Sulphide tablets used to check grain spoilage render the grains unfit for human consumption. Safe storage about which there had been lot of pep talk for the past three decades is still a dream. Similar situation prevails in Haryana and in the rest of the country.

Punjab and Haryana lead the country in supplying wheat and rice to the central pool and this keeps the country’s public distribution system going. Support price system and the farmers’ perseverance have ensured India’s food sovereignty. We no longer live from ship to mouth. India does not face the specter of starvation. It should make these states dance.

It was in April-May 1968, that the country witnessed the magnificent sight of large arrivals of wheat grain in the mandis of Punjab and Haryana. Wheat production in the country rose to 17 million tonnes that year, from the previous best harvest of 12 million tonnes. The then prime minister Indira Gandhi released a special stamp titled “Wheat Revolution” in July 1968 as India rejoiced at the arrival of new dwarf varieties of wheat and with the use of chemicals and fertilizers, a new phase in our agricultural evolution took roots. This is now under serious threat and the revolution is faltering. While farmers face adverse terms of trade, pubic spending since 1990s has decreased leading to a serious agrarian crisis.

Here is what father of Green Revolution, Dr M.S. Swaminathan observed after his recent visit to Punjab’s mandis. He wrote, “Farmers in Punjab contribute nearly 40 per cent of the wheat and 26 per cent of the rice needed to sustain the public distribution system. The legal entitlement to food envisaged under the proposed National Food Security Act cannot be implemented without the help of the farm families of Punjab, Haryana and other grain surplus areas. Farmers are currently facing serious problems during production and post-harvest phases of farming due to inadequate investment in farm machinery and storage infrastructure. The investment made and steps taken to ensure environmentally sustainable production and safe storage and efficient distribution of grains will determine the future of both agriculture in Punjab and national food security”.

He pointed to a sore point ,” The other urgent task is the promotion of appropriate changes in land use. Over 2.7 million hectares are now under rice leading to the unsustainable exploitation of the ground water. Our immediate aim should be to find alternative land use for about a million hactre under rice. This will be possible only if farmers can get income similar to that they are now earning from rice”. This flows from his voluminous recommendations as chairman of the Farmers Commission which are eating dust in the cupboards of our economist prime minister.

There are very disbursing questions .Why is that those who wrote the great story of making India self sufficiency in food grains are sore? Why is that in Punjab alone over one million farmers have left farming during the past one decade? Why our youth is not interested in the age old profession of farming described by Guru Nanak as the best avocation for man? Why hundreds of farmers resort to suicides? Why the land is losing its ingredients and polluted water is causing cancer?

There is a tragic irony that explains the poverty of leaders, policy planners and executioners.



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